In 1956, Harlem-bred child of Caribbean immigrants Harry Belafonte released the first million-selling LP in history. He was bigger than Elvis. Belafonte used the proceeds from Calypso to bankroll his friend Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement for civil rights.
All of this and more is covered in his new memoir, My Song and the HBO documentary, “Sing Your Song,” Belafonte recounts his journey from poor in Harlem and Jamaica to becoming the key go-between for Dr. Martin Luther King’s movement and the federal government, and the only man to speak to both King and Bobby Kennedy on a daily basis through those years.
Below are excerpts.
You were born in Harlem, but your mother who raised you was a Jamaican immigrant. How do you think your Caribbean roots shaped your experience growing up?
HB: People from the Caribbean did not respond to America’s oppressions in the same way that black Americans did. We were constantly in a state of rebellion, constantly in a state of thinking way above that which we were given. My people were gangsters and lived in the underworld. And I don’t mean major American crime; I mean, as an immigrant, if you can’t find work inside the law, you find work outside the law. Running numbers and so on. Which is, of course, a characteristic of the poor, who find ways to break the rules, since the rules are always stacked against them.
I know you’ve been spending a lot of time recently in your old neighborhood, Harlem. What strikes you about how the neighborhood has changed since your own, shall we say, delinquent youth there? How has the community changed?
HB: One of the foremost things that we suffer from, for children, is the lack of models, of tangible role models. A lot of us, as kids, had no such problems. Because then, a lot of the achievers, they were also required to live in the middle of Harlem, or in the South Side of Chicago. “Rich nigs” couldn’t go anywhere. We saw Robeson. We saw Duke Ellington; he lived with us. Now none of those heroic figures live in Bed-Stuy or the heart of Harlem. Now they live in Martha’s Vineyard, Fire Island. In California, they live in Beverly Hills. So there is a definite segregation between role models. They’re not in our midst.
When you were close with the Kennedys, in those years when JFK asked you to help lead the Peace Corps, you persuaded him to sponsor African students to come to America, one of whom was our current president’s father.
HB: We had the airlift, right. Myself, Jackie Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a woman called Cora Weiss. And we brought Kenyan students, before independence. To the chagrin of England. There was a huge foreign-policy glitch—England protested bitterly that the government permitted us to do this, without Kenyan visas. That we got them visas to enter American universities. And one of our lifts—and we didn’t have many—on one of those planes, we had Barack Obama’s father.